In mid-March of 2010, delegates to the annual Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) failed to place the endangered population of Atlantic bluefin tuna on their list of protected species. Overfishing of this enormously popular food species has led to an equally enormous decline in its population over the course of the past 6 decades. Statistics from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) indicate that the decline (for both the Atlantic and Mediterranean species combined) over that time period is approximately 80-97%. The only known spawning ground for the Atlantic bluefin is the Gulf Of Mexico, which is currently in the midst of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. This one-two punch of lack of regulation and the disaster in the Gulf could easily result in the decimation of this incredible fish, and quite possibly, its extinction.
While CITES delegates from the European Union and the United States, among others, were strongly in favor of adding the Atlantic bluefin to the CITES endangered list, they were outmaneuvered and out lobbied by the Japanese delegation. Japan currently imports around 80% of the entire bluefin tuna harvest as it is prized for sushi and sashimi. At a news conference after the CITES meeting, the head of the Japanese delegation, Masanori Miyahara, acknowledged that Atlantic bluefin stocks had been depleted and should be addressed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Unfortunately, it has been under ICCAT’s watch that the bluefin population has suffered its greatest depletion. Of the 80% decline in breeding populations over the last 60 years, the majority has occurred in the past ten years.
So why would the CITES delegates and ICCAT representatives be resistant to further protection of this embattled species? Money. An average bluefin will auction for $20,000 and up. Larger fish will often bring upwards of $100, 000. As a matter of fact, according to bigmarinefish.com, a single fish has auctioned as high as $172,400 in the Japanese auctions. There is no question that intensive lobbying on the part of commercial fisheries and marketers, both in the U.S. and Japan, strongly influenced these decision makers. The shortsightedness of current ICCAT policy, and the CITES decision to defer to it, may soon be overshadowed by another manmade factor that could be the coup de grace of this magnificent fish.
On April 20, 2010 an oil rig operated by British Petroleum exploded in the Gulf Of Mexico, releasing hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf. To date, BP has not been able to stop the flow, and oil continues to pump into the Gulf as of the writing of this article, nearly two months later. The ecological and economical impact of this spill will be years in the tallying. One thing that is almost certain to be the case, however, is that the disaster in the Gulf Of Mexico will negatively impact the bluefin tuna.
While little is known regarding the spawning grounds of the Atlantic bluefin tuna, its only known spawning ground is in the north-central area of the Gulf Of Mexico. This is exactly where the spill originated. Ironically, the bluefin tuna’s yearly spawning time is roughly from May 1 through the first or second week of June, placing it in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. According to Tag-A-Giant Foundation, the fish’s migratory spawning path may have led it into the worst of the spill. Given the ongoing nature of the catastrophe in the Gulf, no one can yet begin to ascertain the extent of damage this might cause to the further degeneration of the bluefin population.
In light of this, many organizations and groups are working to put a moratorium on bluefin fishing, both in the private and public sectors. A major effort is the petition put forth from the Center For Biological Diversity, based in San Francisco, California. The Center is deeply involved in many conservation efforts and has recently filed a petition to place the bluefin on the U.S. Endangered Species Act. If successful, the petition would give the species additional protections and perhaps give American legislators some cover to lean a little more heavily on those who would otherwise disregard conventions, quotas, and responsible husbandry. Time will tell, but time may be the one thing the bluefin tuna simply just doesn’t have.